With its complex imbrication of glossily painted horizontal and vertical bars, Valencia Wall is a robust and beautiful example from the Wall of Lights series that has been Sean Scully's abiding concern since it was begun in the late 1990s. Recently the subject of a travelling exhibition culminating in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, this series is the culmination of Scully's career-long exploration of abstract painting. Using a five inch brush and oil paints thickened with varnish, Scully builds up his compositions piecemeal, applying multiple layers of paint to emphasise the presence of the artist's hand. With its gorgeous emphasis on red applied with thick, inky blacks, Valencia Wall is remarkable for its boldness of hue. Building layer upon layer, the feathered edges of his 'bricks' and the spaces between them create fascinating, highly complex structures. It is these joins, like the fault lines between tectonic plates, where friction between different coloured forms ignites the composition. Like light seeping through the cracks in a wall, previous layers of pigment are glimpsed through successive films, archeologically revealing the history of the painting's creation. Compositionally, the work evokes the architectural structure of its title, reminding us of dry stone walls, post-and-lintel construction and even the megalithic structures of Dolmen and Stonehenge. Yet as the contradiction inherent in the series title implies, these solid structures are dematerialised by Scully's use of colour, so that in density there is light and in etherealness there is weight.
The genesis of the series was an influential trip that Scully made to Mexico in the early 1980s, where he became fascinated by the stacked stones of ancient Mayan walls at Yucatan, which, when animated by light, seemed to reflect the passage of time. "These places in the Yucatan were cities, now you see a wall, what remains, a wall transformed by light, the walls change colour, from pink to blue to red. I would get up early, the shadows completely transform the ruined architecture, they make it seem hopeful one moment, tragic another" (the artist cited in David Carrier, Sean Scully, London 2004, p. 25). After successive return visits and almost twenty years after the initial trip, Scully made his first Wall of Light painting in 1998. Although in essence an abstract painter, Scully's paintings are linked by their titles to specific people, places and experiences. An itinerant artist, he has studios in New York, London, Munich and Barcelona and the different psyches and lights of those cities feeds into the paintings that he makes there. With its intense oxide reds and less constrained, asymmetrical composition, Valencia Wall is an ode to the Mediterranean light, sun baked terracotta and long, creeping shadows of dusk in the Spanish coastal city, very different in tone from the paintings made in his studios in Chelsea New York or Deptford in London. For Scully, black is a coda for traditional Spanish painting, which he loves, from Velasquez to Goya, and is present here in four masonry-like slabs which anchor the composition. Like the Spanish Old Masters, Scully is concerned with the brushstroke and the touch of the human hand that reveals the artist's hesitations, his thought processes and vulnerabilities. In this way Scully's paintings, although resolutely abstract, are pregnant with emotive content. Although doubtless influenced by American Minimalism, Scully's titling process and emphasis on man-made facture is diametrically opposed to the oblique titles and non-referential abstraction of Minimalism.
More than any artist of his generation, Scully combines the formal traditions of European painting – the brooding tones of Velasquez and Manet and the spectacular colours and brushwork of van Gogh and Matisse – with a distinctly American abstract tradition, epitomised in particular by Rothko and Pollock. Born in Ireland, he studied in London but sought out the great masters of Abstract Expressionism in New York where he settled from 1975 onwards. Seeing the heroic post-war painting as his direct heritage, it is with Rothko in particular that he shares a special affinity. In Rothko, light combines with darkness and a moody, melancholic drama, and this is the cornerstone of Scully's appreciation of his forefather. He says of his predecessor's work "The sky and the sea, as well as all the experiences the artist has lived and all the stories he would like to tell are distilled into rectangles that have the solemnity of Stonehenge" (The artist cited in Michael Auping, 'No Longer a Wall' in Exhibition Catalogue, Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Sean Scully: Wall of Light, 2005-06, p. 24). Like Rothko, Scully has evolved his own abstract language of rectangular brick-like forms that fit closely together and are characterised by broad brushstrokes. By paring down his means to pure colour and surface texture, he seeks to tease out life's vicissitudes from the depths of colour, brushstroke and light that he painstakingly builds layer upon layer into his work. Manifesting a complete adherence to the principal tenets of abstraction, in Valencia Wall Scully lyrically conveys its emotional power, its storytelling potential and above all its capacity to convey light.
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